Focus Corner

Signing up to targets at Copenhagen will be meaningless

November 4th, 2009 by   (View Author Profile)

As the world’s nations prepare to negotiate at Copenhagen in December the specific negotiators will be concentrating on targets. Each major nation will have a different idea about which target is right for it, and each small nation will have more ambitious targets than each large nation.I expect that at the end of the negotiations various leaders will attend and as a result of their attendance claim credit for a deal that has saved the world because the nations of the world will have signed up to a series of targets. Hooray! Unfortunately most of targets will be flexible and capable of various interpretations. Never mind flexible and ambiguous targets are better than no targets at all, the world’s leaders will say, and they will explain their confidence in having saved the planet because the world has signed up to targets.

Now everyone agreeing to reach a specific target (or as I prefer to think of these things, agreeing to pass a specific milestone) is very different from actually reaching a target.

In the United Kingdom there have been “legally binding” targets to abolish fuel poverty for the past ten years. Today more people are in fuel poverty than ever, because the legally binding target has been defined but the measures that are required to reach that target has not been legally set out.

So it will be with climate change. Setting a target (or milestone) without the means of getting to it, makes no sense to me. It is as though the world’s leaders are telling the population of the world to go on a long, difficult journey without telling them which road to use and which means of travel to adopt.

Already the world’s nations have given up on what is the sensible target which is to reduce the greenhouse gas emission to the amount which the planet can recycle. This target is far greater than any target that may be agreed at Copenhagen, because of the time scales. The most common green house gas, carbon dioxide, lasts over a hundred years in the atmosphere before it is broken down, and if we can only recycle (as we can now) about half of the carbon dioxide emissions, we are already committed to some global warming. In order to keep emissions at the level of what the planet can recycle we need to reduce emissions by 80% now. That would save the planet.

Obviously no such agreement will be reached at Copenhagen, which is why the politicians are talking about limiting emissions so that there is not more than a two degree rise in average global temperatures by 2020. Again, the talk does not really fit in with my understanding of the science. The relationship between emissions and average temperature is not fully understood; we have Arctic ice melting, most glaciers retreating rapidly but at the same time average temperatures are for the time being stable. The danger to the planet from average temperatures is difficult to understand in terms of climate change processes and all the modelling in the world may not make our understanding sharper.

The relationship that worries me more than that between emissions and average temperatures is the relationship between emissions and local weather patterns, because it is changes in local weather – intensity and frequency of storms, hurricanes, typhoons, flooding and drought – that will be more dangerous to humanity than an increase in average temperature without a change in weather events.

Probably accords like that which is likely to be struck at Copenhagen, will be meaningless in terms of saving the planet from climate change. It is only when we have a combination of specific measures and specific things that create greenhouse gas emissions outlawed will the planet have a meaningful agreement which not only shows the danger but also shows us the way out if it.

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